EAST LANSING – Jonathan Smith and his family arrived with the marching band blaring and cheerleaders chanting, a short stroll to the podium inside Breslin Center’s grand entryway for a long road ahead.
Michigan State football’s 26th head coach stood before his new peers and coworkers Tuesday, the midday sunshine illuminating him through the windows as he spoke, and he extolled the virtues of what he wants his program to be.
“Low ego, high output. ... Selfless”
“Building trust. ... Process-oriented.”
“A program of substance on and off the field.”
And so on. Exactly what an introductory press conference should be about.
Smith kept returning to one word in particular: “Fit.” And as he did, the Spartans’ all-time winningest coach in school history, Mark Dantonio, nodded silently from the audience.
Almost 17 years to the day, on Nov. 27, 2006, Dantonio – at that time, just above a .500 coach – got his chance to introduce himself and his vision for a program that was reeling from another Smith, John L.
He talked that day about winning championships and reviving a brand of toughness MSU football had been known for. Which he did.
Those were the same things Jonathan Smith brought up when it came to what he envisioned as the identity for his Spartans.
The two spoke Monday in Smith’s new office, Dantonio’s old one, two days after athletic director Alan Haller hired the former Oregon State coach. He replaces Mel Tucker, Dantonio’s replacement, who was fired Sept. 27.
Dantonio’s advice to Smith?
“Enjoy the ride,” he recalled Tuesday, with a final grin as he readies to return to retirement.
To get Smith away from his alma mater, Haller said he gave the 44-year-old a seven-year contract that starts at $7.25 million, though full terms of the deal and buyout details have not yet been released. Smith was making $4.85 million at Oregon State on a deal that ran through 2029, with a $3 million buyout.
It ended a longer-than-usual search process because of the timing of Tucker’s termination. That was a markedly different timeline from replacing Dantonio when he retired Feb. 4, 2020, and the school rushed to hire Tucker just 12 days later.
“I was getting antsy,” Haller said of the lengthy process. “I wanted to call people a lot earlier, and I held off on that. I was scared about other jobs coming open. I wanted people to know that I was interested. But waiting allowed me – because when I started this, I had four or five people that were here (raising hand up). And they just went like this (lowering hand down). And there was a group that went like this (raising hand again). And some of it was play on the field, and some of it was research. And so the difference with this search, I was able to know these guys quite a bit. We didn't have that opportunity last time.”
Haller said his research consisted of talking to "three or four industry people" about his candidates, reading articles on the coaches and watching videos of their teams. Dantonio, who won a program record 114 games and three Big Ten titles, talked with Mike Riley, Smith's former coach from his playing days at Oregon State, and his former boss at Boise State and Washington, Chris Petersen, and got glowing endorsements.
“They raved about Jonathan,” Dantonio said. “And not only his football abilities, coaching abilities, but also the type of person he is and his character.
Haller said a group of current athletes, donors and a group of MSU legends – Steve Smith, Lorenzo White, Benny Fowler, Kirk Cousins and Jimmy Raye among them – helped him establish a criteria for what they felt the Spartans needed in a new leader. Dantonio said he served as Haller’s “sounding board, maybe in terms of what type of individual we want and need, the general characteristics of that individual.”
To the third-year athletic director, a former MSU football player and MSU Police officer who was part of the committees that hired both Dantonio and Tucker, one characteristic mattered most – the root word character.
“To be honest, the last search we did, the only time we talked to the candidates was when we flew to see them. We didn't do a lot of research,” Haller said. “I know all these guys. I mean, I know probably six of the top coaches in the country really well, right now. And this guy, he just didn't start up here, but he just kept coming up and up. And the more I learned about him, the more I learned about his family, I knew he was our guy. …
“We were going after a person as well. We wanted a good football coach, but there was a type of person that we wanted to bring to our community here.”
Smith talked about growing up in Pasadena, California, and watching the annual Big Ten journey west for the Rose Bowl. Now, the 2022 Pac-12 Co-Coach of the Year is moving his wife, Candice, and their three children (Robert, Bella and Charles) more than halfway across the country after six years at his alma mater. He has never coached east of Montana in his career that began in 2002, immediately after his playing days ended.
“I've got confidence in this move. I cannot overstate the idea of the transition of a family, all the way over here,” said Smith, who had a 34-35 record in six seasons with the Beavers, his first head coaching job. “I cannot overstate how important and confident I think we are in this thing – I shouldn't say think. We ARE confident in this thing. And we're so excited to be here and really get started. …
“I think a clear and concise message of how and why we’re gonna do things is really important from the get-go. Buy-in, belief, that’s just not free.
Before he arrived at Oregon State as a walk-on in 1997, the Beavers hadn't had a winning season since 1970. In the four seasons he started at quarterback from 1998-2001, Smith helmed a 7-5 record in 1999 and an 11-1 mark in 2000.
When he returned to OSU as head coach in 2018, the Beavers went 7-28 in the previous three seasons and hadn't had a winning record since 2013. The first few years were tough sledding, but then the switch flipped during the 2021 season. Smith had a 25-13 record over his final three seasons.
“There was nothing negative ever said about him. It was that. No one said anything about him that raised a flag,” Haller said. “It was, ‘This guy is awesome, the community’s gonna love him. They're gonna love his style of play. He recruits well.’ And everyone said that.”
Smith also talked about bringing “a physical brand of football on both sides of the ball” to MSU along with “an innovative offense.” Haller pointed to a lineage from Biggie Munn to Duffy Daugherty, from George Perles to Nick Saban, that “tough, physical football has always been a part of Spartan football.”
Haller said the same was true for “my guy,” Dantonio. And Smith said he definitely plans to lean on Dantonio for advice moving forward.
“Because he did it at the highest level, with the idea of sustainability and development,” Smith said. “Me and him were in cahoots in how we want to approach this thing. Now, this is a little bit different landscape from 2010 to '20 and how this has changed, so you gotta be able to navigate.
“But I think there are some core principles of development and recruiting that can last a lifetime. And I plan on doing it.”
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This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Jonathan Smith's plan for Michigan State starts with selflessness